May 21, 2009

Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era

Section 3: Business, Wall Street and Labor

Over the past few years, the country has suffered through a devastating decline in the housing market, a stock market crash, and spiraling unemployment. Yet the public’s fundamental attitudes about business have changed very little. As in past values surveys, most Americans link the country’s strength to the success of business, yet consistent majorities also view corporations as too powerful and too motivated by profits.

Overall opinions about government regulation of business also have been steady – though here, in contrast to general views of business, there have been striking political and demographic shifts. Republicans are far more skeptical of government regulation of business than they were two years ago, which is consistent with their increasingly negative opinions of government activism.

The public expresses mixed views of Wall Street, which has been at the center of the financial storm. Two-thirds (67%) agree that “Wall Street only cares about making money for itself.” Yet nearly as many (63%) say that “Wall Street makes an important contribution to the American economy.” As far as Wall Street’s overall impact, 49% agree that it “often hurts the economy more than helps it,” while 37% disagree.

While the public’s attitudes toward business have not moved much, its support for labor unions has fallen to an all-time low. Roughly six-in-ten (61%) agree that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person;” 34% disagree. The proportion saying labor unions are needed to protect working people has declined from 68% in 2007; throughout the previous decade, 70% or more consistently said labor unions were needed to protect working people.

In addition, more people see labor unions as “too powerful” than did so a decade ago. Currently, 61% agree that labor unions are too powerful, while 33% disagree. In 1999, 52% saw unions as too powerful, compared with 40% who disagreed.

What’s Good for Business…

Overall, 76% agree that “the strength of this country today is mostly based on the success of American business,” while 20% disagree. Compared with the other values items in this survey, there is an unusual degree of consensus in opinions about this issue. Eight-in-ten Republicans (82%) agree that the strength of the United States is linked to the success of business, a view shared by almost as many independents (75%) and Democrats (74%).

At the same time, 77% of Americans say that “there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies.” A 62% majority says businesses make too much profit, while fewer than four-in-ten (37%) say businesses “generally strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest.” These opinions also have changed little, though the proportion saying business corporations strike the appropriate balance between profits and the public interest is lower than it was a decade ago (45% in 1999).

There are political and demographic differences over whether business corporations are too powerful and profitable and whether they strike a fair balance between seeking profits and serving the public interest. Yet these divisions have been fairly consistent over the years. For instance, in the current survey, 84% of Democrats, 77% of independents and 66% of Republicans believe too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few big companies. These partisan differences are not substantially greater than they were in the first values survey 22 years ago.

Free Market and Regulation

The stability of opinions about business casts the changing views of government regulation of business into sharp relief. As with other opinions relating to government and its role, Republicans and Democrats have moved sharply in opposite directions since 2007. Overall, 54% of Americans say that “government regulation of business does more harm than good,” which is little changed from 2007 (57%) (For more, see Section 2: Views of Government and the Social Safety Net.)

While the public is divided over the efficacy of government regulation of business, there is greater agreement that some regulation of the free market is needed. Twice as many agree (62%) as disagree (29%) that “the free market needs regulation to best serve the public interest.”

While three-quarters of Republicans say government regulation of business does more harm than good, 48% agree that the free market needs regulation; 44% disagree. Still, far more Democrats (75%) and independents (62%) say the free market needs regulation. The gap is even more pronounced in the strength of agreement: Fully 35% of Democrats completely agree that the free market needs regulation to best serve the public interest, compared with 20% of independents and just 7% of Republicans.

Mixed Views of ‘Wall Street’

While a large majority of Americans (67%) sees Wall Street as solely interested in making money for itself, nearly as many (63%) say it makes an important contribution to the economy. More agree than disagree with the statement “Wall Street often hurts the economy more than helps it” – but the margin is hardly overwhelming (49% agree, 37% disagree).

The belief that Wall Street hurts the economy more than helps it is much more widespread among blacks than whites (64% vs. 47%). While most people with family incomes of less than $30,000 agree (55%) that Wall Street hurts the economy, a comparable proportion in the top income category ($100,000 or more) disagrees (56%).

Partisan differences in views of Wall Street’s impact on the economy are relatively modest. A majority of Democrats (55%) agree that Wall Street often hurts the economy more than helps it, compared with 47% of independents and 43% of Republicans.

Just over half (53%) of Americans with no stock investments agree that Wall Street often harms the economy more than helps it. Six-in-ten active traders disagree (62%), while long-term investors are equally divided (46% agree, 47% disagree).

Labor Loses Ground

Democrats continue to overwhelmingly say that labor unions are necessary to protect working people. However, there have been sharp declines in the proportions of independents and Republicans who express this view.

Democrats’ opinions about the importance of unions have been remarkably stable: Currently, 80% agree that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person, which is unchanged from 2007 and from a decade ago.

But only about half of independents (53%) now see labor unions as necessary to protect working people, a decline of 14 points from 2007 and 23 points from 2003. The percentage of independents agreeing with this statement is at its lowest point since the question was first asked in 1987. The proportion of Republicans who believe unions are necessary to protect working people also has hit a new low (44%); in 2003, 62% of Republicans saw unions as necessary.

Racial differences over whether unions are necessary to protect working people also have widened considerably. Currently, 82% of African Americans say unions are necessary, compared with 54% of whites. Labor unions have lost support among white men, in particular, over the past several years. Just 47% of white men agree that labor unions are necessary to protect working people, down from 67% six years ago. Over that period, the percentage of white women who see unions as necessary has declined by 11 points (from 72% to 61%).